Susan J Tweit Blog Feed

Gratitude for Mothers of all Sorts

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Mother's Day reminds me to appreciate mothers, those of the heart as well as those who bear us. Thank you to all who nurture and support life, whether human or any of the other life forms who take part in the community of this breathing, animate planet. Your love is a gift.  

(That's my mom, Joan Cannon Tweit, in the photo above, on her last wilderness camping trip. She was 78 years old when we hiked to a yurt in Colorado's Never Summer Range to celebrate Dad's 80th birthday.)

As I worked in my yard today, I thought about Mom, and how much she would enjoy the daffodils blooming in clumps here and there (I planted 150 daffodil bulbs last fall, and they are rewarding me abundantly this spring). And the peonies peeking up from the soil with their red stems and finger-like leaves; the lilacs, purple buds sill tight-fisted; and the green spears of the lily of the valley leaves emerging in the backyard, where the roof runoff waters them after each wet snow or spring rain. 

She would have loved the native plants I'm adding to my once lawn-bound yard too: the new leaves on the spreading phlox and the penstemon, the tiny golden buds on Jones goldenaster, and the yarrow, mallows, and Lewis flax appearing the back-yard meadow. 

Mom taught me to love plants. She is the one who led our family's clandestine expeditions to rescue wildflowers from development sites, digging up their fragile roots carefully and nestling them in soil in plastic bread bags, and then pedaling home on our bikes to replant them in her woodland garden. (Mom was legally blind and didn't drive, but she was fearless on a bicycle.) 

The "bellyflowers" she would kneel on the ground to admire on hikes to windswept alpine tundra, the breathtaking swaths of gold California poppies on the Big Sur Coast in spring, and the rainbow of flowers in the Sonoran Desert. She wasn't picky though--if she couldn't have wildflowers, Mom was just as happy burying her face in fragrant peonies, admiring brilliantly colored tulips, or smiling when I twirled hollyhock flowers like full-skirted ballerinas. 

California poppies on Big Sur

She loved redwoods so tall I got a neck-ache from trying to see their tops, as well as twisted and wind-blasted pines at upper timberline. She took joy in spiny cactus, even the fishhook cactus that six-year-old me sat on accidentally, and Mom, magnifying glass in hand, had to tweeze each hooked spine out of my butt. 

Mom was, as I wrote in Bless the Birds, 

the wavy-haired, blue-eyed college student who met Dad at the University of California, a six-block walk from her Berkeley home, and made him wait until she graduated to get married. ...Who earned a master’s degree in library science despite being legally blind. ...Whose smile could light up a room; who prized birdsong, wildflowers, and mountain hikes as much as chocolate. And she really loved chocolate.

Mom died on February 3, 2011, two months to the day before her 80th birthday, and nine months before brain cancer took Richard, the love of my life. I think of Mom every day, and especially when I work in my yard, or go for a hike to see wildflowers. Or eat some chocolate... 

-----

For a plant-person like me, a day with time to hang out with my green kin--whether wild or in my garden--is an excellent day, whether it's Mother's Day or any other day of the year.

The ony thing that could make Mother's Day better is getting this note from Molly, the daughter of my heart, along with a gift certificate to one of my favorite mail-order nurseries:

Happy Mother's Day
You have always been and always will be a mother to me. When I think about my strengths, I see your hand and voice in all of them. 
I'll send you a longer note, for now just sending love.

Oh, yeah. That one made me cry. Thank you sweetie! I love you too. Always.  

Stand-up paddleboard lessons with Molly and her fearless dog, Roxy. Molly is like a dancer on a SUP; I excel at falling off with a huge splash!

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A Jones for House Renovation Projects

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I'm in New Mexico for my final work trip of this spring, and today I took the day off (I know, me, not working?!) for some personal care. (I'm working on that finding-a-sustainable-life-pace thing, and taking time off to take care of myself is part of that practice.)

This afternoon, I was telling Heather, my fantastic hair stylist at Rock Paper Scissors in Santa Fe about my renovation-project-in-progress of my house in Cody. (That's my renovated mid-Century Modern living-dining room in the photo above. It was not in that kind of shape when I bought the house.)

"You love a house project, don't you?" she said. 

I do. It occurred to me later that I've been engaged in house renovation or building projects for much of the past two-plus decades, beginning with the sweet little brick duplex Richard and I bought as our summer home in Salida, Colorado, in 1995, when we still lived in New Mexico. That duplex was built in 1902 in Salida's wrong-side-of-the-tracks West Second Street neighborhood, close to what was then an extensive railroad yard.

Like many houses in the neighborhood at that time, the duplex had "potential" in real estate parlance, meaning it was in very bad shape. The building boasted an ornamental brick front (which had been spray painted blue) and original wood sash windows (which neither opened nor shut after nearly a century of weathering), hand-plastered walls, antique wiring (so old it was actually flammable), and plumbing put together with duct tape instead of actual joints. In hard rains, the roof leaked down the inside of the walls, and there were locust sprouts growing through the joints between the pine floorboards in a few places.

But the price was right, and the little duplex was in walking distance of everything we loved about Salida: the river, the library, the town trail system, the hardware store, and downtown with its galleries, coffee-shops, and bookstores. So we bought it, fixed the worst problems, and rented it until we moved to Salida fulltime two years later. 

Dad, Mom, and Richard on the dilapidated front porch of the duplex in the summer of 1997. We (I and our alcoholic handyman) had carefully sanded the blue paint off the brick front by then.

By the time we moved, Molly was in college, and Richard was on the road as an expert witness testifying in cases in 23 different states about the deregulation of the telecommunications industry. His usual MO was to arrive home on Friday night, write or edit testimony over the weekend, and fly off to the next case on Sunday afternoon. 

Which left me in charge of the crew making our place habitable. While I finished my fifth book. Mind you, it was Richard who understood building, and spoke "tool" fluently, not me. But I was there and he wasn't, and no construction project stays even close to schedule if the decisions have to wait for the weekend for the job boss to be home.

So I became de facto job boss. Our contractor (thank you, Bob Spencer!) and his crew learned to come to me with not only questions, but explanations for what the outcome of the decisions I was making implied. I learned a lot about house guts and renovation before that duplex was finished enough that we could fully move in. I also learned to trust my instincts. 

Which came in handy over the course of the six years (!) we spent building Terraphilia, our house across the alley, and began the renovation on the historic brick industrial building that was Richard's studio. For the most part, Richard handled the building and renovation, and I handled restoring the land and block of adjacent creek. But after my experience as job boss on the duplex renovation, I had a say in the design and building decisions.

Terraphilia with Richard's studio behind (peeking out on the right-hand side)

To Richard's (and my) surprise, I also proved an adept helper in a pinch, like the October night when he came home after finally wrestling the last sheet of leaking metal roofing off of his studio building, and reported that underneath, the decking planks had large gaps between them. A snowstorm was predicted by morning, so he needed to get waterproofing membrane on the roof or risk damaging the hundreds of books and tools in the studio, along with his big table saw, planer, and other woodworking machines. 

I volunteered to roll the layers of waterproofing membrane across the steep roof so he could do the skilled bits like repairing rotten planks and stabilizing the brick parapets. After some discussion, he agreed (I suspect only because no one else was available). We finished "drying in" the roof at just before two am, and then staggered across the alley to bed, exhausted. The next morning brought ten inches of heavy, wet snow. The studio roof didn't leak a drop. 

My budding competence at building renovation projects came in handy again when Richard died of brain cancer five years later, leaving both the studio and the house unfinished. The studio needed a ceiling, new wiring, new plumbing, and some drywall and paint. A combination of friends (a shout-out to expert painter, Robbie Smith!), volunteers (thank you, Grant Pound and the Colorado Art Ranch crew), and professionals completed that work with me as job boss. 

The inside of the historic studio building after finish-work. 

The house was a bigger project. It lacked interior trim and baseboards, interior doors, cabinet doors and drawers, and a finished master bathroom (only the toilet and my soaking tub were in place and functional), and involved design and materials challenges that Richard had talked about often, but never solved. After our nephew did the trim-work and baseboards in the attached guest apartment (thank you, Andrew Cabe!), I imagined hiring out the rest of the house. Until I looked at my finances and realized I couldn't afford to hire anyone else. 

I had only been job boss up to that point, and occasionally grunt labor. My tool competence was approximately nil. I had everything to learn, and no time to waste. I needed to sell the whole complex to pay an overwhelming amount of post-brain-cancer bills. When I rashly told my friends Maggie & Tony Niemann, software developers who also rehab houses, that I had decided to do the finish work myself. They said, "We'll teach you."

My best friends, the air compressor and larger of the two pneumatic nailers, both of which lived in the back hall of the house for nine months. 

And they did: we spent an average of two evenings a week and one weekend day for the next nine months at the work. I am in their debt forever. In the process, I  learned to live with an air compressor in my back hall (to power the pneumatic tools, which I also learned to use), to mill lumber with the giant table saw, planer, jointer, and belt sanders in Richard's studio. I learned how to work with not just wood, but also metal, stone, and other materials. And I learned how to understand what lay behind the design decisions I made. Hands-on work implementing your own decisions is perhaps the best way to truly learn. If not the easiest.

The living room at Terraphilia, the big house, after we boxed in the studs dividing that long block of windows, and added trim and baseboard throughout. 

While Tony and Maggie were teaching me how to finish the big house and helping me do the work, I also oversaw the design and construction of my little house (Creek House) and garage with second-story guest studio (Treehouse) at the other end of the block. For that project, I went back to job boss, only occasionally picking up my tools to do some finish details. It was the first building project I had overseen completely on my own, and I'm still proud of it. The spaces turned out as beautifully as I imagined, and the passive solar design worked just the way I planned. (Whew!)

Treehouse (on the left) and Creek House (on the right) from across the creek that inspired the name of the house. 

Three years after selling Terraphilia and the studio, and moving to Creek House and Treehouse, I picked up stakes and headed home to northwest Wyoming. Where I fell in love with the totally dilapidated mid-Century Modern house and its too-big yard that are my current project. (Both house and yard had been negletced for decades. My friend Connie, after touring the house when I first looked at it, told her husband Jay that the place was "scary." In hindsight, I agree!)

New roof and eave work to come next month, plus more plantings to replace the lawn in the front yard... 

A year and a quarter after that January move, I can see the end of my current house and yard renovation project. It's been deeply satisfying to revive this once-beautiful house and ready it for its next sixty years. I've mostly been job boss on the house, but the yard has taken a lot of physical and mental labor: muscle and grit and determination. So I have sweat and skin in the game, and I'm already wondering what's next. 

I realize now that building and landscape renovation is in my blood, and I'm not likely to quit anytime soon. So somewhere out there is the next project that will suck me in... The truth is I'm wholeheartedly in love with the whole renovation and building thing: the challenges, the design problems, and the work with tools and materials. It's satisfying to bring structure and place to life, engaging body, brain, and heart. 

Me, sweaty and determined Tool Girl at work... 

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When Life Gives Us "Bonus Time"

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I was curled up in my sleeping bag in Red one night on my road-trip, cozy and warm and digesting both dinner, and what I had seen and heard over the day's miles. As I started to drift off to sleep, a phrase drifted across the screen of my mind, "bonus time." Then I heard or dreamed a voice saying, "This is your bonus time. Use it well." 

The next morning, I woke before dawn to frost on the inside of the windows in my truck topper. I snuggled deeper into my sleeping bag and thought about the message I had heard. What does "bonus time" mean? And what will I do to use it well? 

I pondered the idea for another two days and 900 miles. (I am definitely not a fast thinker!) I think for me, bonus time means that after 16 years of intense caregiving of others, beginning when we moved my parents to Denver in 2002, I have reached a period in my life where I am free to do what I want to do, whatever that may be. (Assuming I can pay the bills, of course, and stay healthy.)  

Richard, the love of my life and my husband for nearly 29 years, has been gone six years and three months, and the years of scrambling to pay the debts left from his journey with brain cancer and find sound financial footing are behind me. No more working two jobs, no more evenings and weekends spent finishing the house and his shop with the help of patient friends (thank you, Grant Pound and crew, and Maggie and Tony!) so I could sell that property before I lost it. No more racing to finish the little house, my next home, so I would have a place to live while I figured out what was next.

Richard and Molly, January, 2010: He has survived his first brain surgery (that sinuous scar on the side of his head will be re-incised three more times), and is a few days from finishing his first course of radiation for brain cancer. She is about to head back to San Francisco after spending a week in Denver with him while I was on an island off La Paz, Mexico, leading a writing retreat.

No more driving hell-bent-for-leather over the mountains in all manner of weather to sort out a problem with Dad, living alone in Denver after Mom's death. Dad is now comfortably settled in the Assisted Living unit of the retirement community in Western Washington where he moved to be closer to the rest of the Tweit clan (my brother, sister-in-law, and their girls and families). Molly is settled in San Francisco in a challenging career in advertising. And I, who wasn't supposed to live beyond my twenties, am still chugging along, albeit more slowly than I once did. 

So this is truly my bonus time, however long it lasts. "Bonus" because I didn't expect to be here, alone, with no one depending on me. "Bonus" because I am here at all. "Bonus" because with the help of friends and my family, I am debt-free and can pursue the work I love, writing, and restoring houses and land. Of course to get that bonus, I had to find a gracious and discerning way to help two of the people I love most in this world live through the end of their lives. And then I had to survive their loss, and learn how to live well without them. 

 

My restored living-dining room on a sunny day recently when the spring weather wasn't spitting snow the way it is right now. 

I realize that it could be argued that rescuing a house as badly dilapidated as this one was, or hand-digging invasive weeds in a landscape as enormous as Yellowstone and its 3,500 square miles of wildness could be considered forms of caregiving. Of a particularly insane sort. 

To me though, caring for a house or the community of the land is less fraught than caring for most people. I can enjoy the creative effort, the fast-on-my-feet problem-solving, and the complexities of restoration without having to pick my way through a minefield of human emotions. So neither feels as emotionally taxing. Yet like human caregiving, both are ways to make positive change in this increasingly negative time.

So what am I going to do with my bonus time? I think I've answered my own question: write, and restore neglected or injured places, both buildings and land. Exactly what any of those projects look like and where the path ahead will take me, I don't know. I do know I am looking forward to the journey, and I will do my best to make good use of this bonus time. 

Snow, sleet, and wind have not daunted this little yellow species iris (Iris danfordiae) blooming in my yard, a tiny but heartening harbinger of spring to come. 

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Windshield Time: Listening and Making Time

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I've been on the road since a few days after I wrote the last blog post, driving almost 4,000 miles in two and a half weeks. Which may prompt you to ask, "Didn't you just write about re-learning your limits?" 

I did. This trip was very much an exercise in making time to remember what I do well and what inspires that doing. With reminding myself (again) how intimately linked the doing good work well and the taking care of myself are. One does not happen without the other. And remembering (again) that doing what I love means nurturing myself in the doing. 

I drove to central California via the southern route (St. George, Utah, Las Vegas, and Bakersfield, California) in order to avoid spring snowstorms in the Great Basin and the Sierra Nevada. On my way, I stopped to visit a couple of places Richard and I always intended to see but never made time for, including Carrizo Plain National Monument between California's Central Valley and the chaparral-covered, sage-scented coast ranges. (Photo at the top of the post.)

I drove into the faulted, grassy hills of Carrizo Plain from the south end, on a paved road so little used the prairie is actively reclaiming the edges and the middle is crumbling. The road follows the fracture of the San Andres Fault, so its term is limited anyway. Nature, as the bumper sticker says, really does bat last. 

I spent a couple of fruitful hours there with absolutely no agenda other than to stroll the unpeopled expanse of grasslands, searching for spring wildflowers and listening to the wind whisper in last year's silvered grasses as meadowlarks fluted around me. I saw one other person, an intern who had driven the 50-some miles from the interpretive center to check on the un-staffed kiosk near the south "entrance," where the barbed wire fence is the only sign of the monument's boundary. We chatted about bird songs and wildflowers, and his work interpreting the Painted Rocks archeology site. And then he left, his truck rumbling away over the far ridge, leaving me with the peaceful winnowing of wind in the grass, sun warming my skin, and those melodious meadowlarks.  

Next stop: San Luis Obispo, where I took the time to spend the night with my dear friend Sharon Lovejoy, author and illustrator extraordinaire, and her husband Jeff Prostovich. (Here's a blog post that gives a wonderful taste of Sharon and her work.) Some years back, Sharon and Jeff invited me to stay with them in the charming loft above Sharon's painting and writing studio, with its walls of books old and new on nature and art and life. On subsequent trips to California, I have never had time to take them up on their offer. This trip, I made time, and had the gift of dinner and conversation in their Mission-style Craftsman bungalow, sleeping to rain pattering on the roof, and waking to birdsong and Sharon's garden.

Part of Sharon's garden, a riot of plants, from edibles like lemon trees to native shrubs and wildflowers, and a mecca for birds of all sorts. 

From Sharon and Jeff's, I headed north to the Bay Area. The traffic on the 101 was miserable, and it rained almost all the way to San Francisco, but I saw two double rainbows on the way, which I took to be a good omen. 

The sun came out as Red and I wended our way through the city and then across the Golden Gate Bridge. I made time to stop in Marin City to meet with Nita Winter and Rob Badger, the two incredible photographers behind The Beauty & The Beast: California Wildflowers and Climate Change, a traveling museum exhibit and coffee-table book in progress. (I wrote an essay for the latter.) Seeing their photos up close was inspiring, as was trading stories of our work. 

From Marin City, I wound my way north and west to Fairfax, and up the narrow road with blind curves to the hillside house of my friend Jenny Barry, designer and packager of award-winning photo, illustrated, and cook books (books she has created have won the James Beard Award, the Colorado Book Award, and many others). Jenny's husband, architect and sculptor Tom Powell designed their house with its clean lines, great light, and wonderful view. She needed a Girls' Night, so we wound our way back down the hill to Tamal, a restaurant inspired by the cuisines of southern Mexico, where we ate a leisurely and delicious dinner and talked about our passions: books and publishing and kids and caregiving and ecological restoration. 

The next morning, I got up early and drove west toward Tomales Bay through fog giving way to sunlit meadows and the deep shade of redwood groves, aimed for Point Reyes Station and the Geography of Hope Conference. The Conference, an annual gathering focused this year on "finding resilience in nature in perilous times," was my reason for the trip. When I first saw the announcement, the theme spoke to me on all sorts of levels: in terms of my ecological restoration work, of finding and nurturing resilience, and just the idea of turning to nature when times feel perilous, as they have for me since the year I midwifed my mother, and my husband and the love of my life through their deaths. 

I saw the announcement, read the theme, and said to myself, "Oh, I would love to go, but I don't have time." And then I realized that I needed to make time to go to the conference. My intuition said, "Go! You will find what you need." I argued, but my inner voice held firm. So I made time. 

And therein is one theme of this blog post: Being the best me I can be means finding time to do what feeds heart, mind, and soul. That is the essence of learning both my limits, and how to love me while doing the work I am passionate about: healing and restoring this earth and we who share our singular blue planet. Finding time, making time, taking time... to do what matters, what inspires, what helps me be who I am, and fuels what I love about what I do. 

The conference promised inspiration in building spiritual and emotional resilience, using nature as a touchstone. We heard from and were inspired by Peter Forbes, former Vice-President of the Trust for Public Land and now Vermont farmer, educator, and facilitator in the areas of leadership, conservation, and social justice; Rue Mapp, founder of the conservation and outdoor leadership program Outdoor Afro; and Caleen Sisk, Spiritual Leader and Tribal Chief of the Winnemem Wintu people, the "Middle River People" of the McCloud River in northern California. Three very different people with very different stories, but all resilient and optimistic about the power of nature and culture to help us survive and even thrive in these perilous times. 

Their words and stories shook and reformed my understanding of what it means to be white and privileged, what it means to share the outdoors with people of different cultures and his/herstories, and what it means to have a deep spiritual relationship with a place stretching back many generations, and to heal the wounds of being ripped away from the place, and in the case of the Winnemem Wintu from the source of your identity, the salmon and the river. 

Even more inspiration and leadings came in conversations and stories of of other conference participants, having lunch with Susan Page Tillett, Director of The Mesa Refuge, where I have been fortunate to have a writing residency. In hanging out with Gavin Van Horn, Jeremy Ohmes, and Kate Cummins of the Center for Humans & Nature, a co-sponsor of the conference and an organization I write for now and again. In walking the marsh near the conference center with Kate and talking about our passions, being female in a perilous world, and about dealing with wrenching change.

Sky Road Webb kindling fire with a horseweed flower stalk in a cedar plank. It's like magic... 

And more still, especially the hands-on work when 100 or so of the conference attendees, ranging from upper teens to 80s, gathered on the banks of Lagunitas Creek to plant over 300 native trees and willow cuttings and restore habitat for the creek's unique winter-run Chinook salmon. First we searched the muddy banks for dry lichens and twigs to help Sky Road Webb, a Coast Miwok born to that watershed, kindle a sacred fire with a fire-stick of horseweed and a plank of cedar. Then Sky sang and taught us Coast Miwok songs for the creek and its salmon beside that sacred fire, so that by the time we broke into small groups to do the planting, we were singing and laughing and celebrating the work and the water and the land. 

I told myself that if I was going to take/make the time to go to the conference, I would open myself to whatever came. I did that all along the way, and at the conference I simply listened, not taking any notes other than what wrote itself on my heart and spirit. I kept that attitude over the thousand-mile drive east to Santa Fe, and during the week I spent in the City of Holy Faith before driving the last leg home. What I heard and did opened doors I hadn't realized even existed.

I'm still contemplating what it means for my path. For now, it's enough that I'm home in Cody, with snow flurrying outside, and my newly planted tomato, basil, and herb starts--the beginnings of this summer's edible garden--are cozy on their heat-mat in my greenhouse window.

Happy Easter, Passover, Oestre, Spring... It's the season of renewal and new life, and I feel that deeply in my heart and in my spirit. As the year turns toward light and new life it's time to listen closely to what that renewal is asking of us. I want to honor that turning by continuing to stay open to what I hear and feel. Blessings!

 

Six varieties of heritage tomatoes, most organic and one of basil, plus raab and broccoli, and two kinds of flowers for pollinators, all seeded in. Thanks to Renee Shepherd and Renee's Garden for the great seeds and garden inspiration!

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Reckoning With My Limits (Again)

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I'm just emerging from a nasty bout of the flu that had me so sick, I didn't even eat for several days. (I like food. It takes a lot to kill my appetite!) While I was lying on the couch shivering and miserable, I had an epiphany that I am still thinking about: 

When I am sick, I can see my limits, and I heed them. As soon as I feel better, I act as if I have no limitations at all. And then I get sick. I behave as if my physical and emotion energy are endless, and I can do anything I want--work until late, go to the gym and exercise hard, do errands, and come back and continue working as if I had all the energy in the world the draw on.  

Only I don't. I know that intellectually. I know that my daily energy budget is a slender one, and when I overdraw it, I pay in all sorts of ways: I get feverish and alternate between shivering and broiling, my hands and feet swell and my joints turn acutely painful, I like awake exhausted with my mind buzzing but can't sleep... It goes on.

This is nothing new. These are the symptoms of the autoimmune condition I've had my whole life. For long periods of time, I've kept them at a minimum by simply staying aware of and respecting my limitations. By picking and choosing what I want to accomplish in any given day. Not pushing myself to cram everything on my to-do list into 24 hours. Honoring what I know I can accomplish in a healthy way, and calling that very good indeed. 

So why am I now struggling to remember to pace myself? Why do I have such hard time integrating what my head knows is a healthy, sustainable pace into my expectations of what I will accomplish every day? 

Or, to turn the question around, what is different when I am sick?

Ah. That's the key: when I am sick, I can see my limits not just because they're obvious. But because my attention is focused inward, and I am listening to my body for clues to what the ecosystem of me--me plus those billions of microbes that are part of the community of my body--needs to get well. 

When I'm sick, my motivation is to pay attention because paying attention and heeding what I hear is the path to feeling better. 

But when I am not sick, I see no urgent need to pay attention to my body. I cruise on auto-pilot. Everything is working, so there is no need to listen within. Until I crash, and have to correct. 

Ah again. So the question becomes not why am I not paying attention, but how do I motivate myself to pay attention? Or perhaps, how do I align my expectations of what I will accomplish in a day with what I know I can do sustainably? 

And that is the heart of the epiphany I had while gripped in the misery of flu and fever: It's not that I'm not listening to myself. I'm not honoring what I hear. I want to value who I am, limitations and all. 

I want to live every day remembering that what's most important is not how much I accomplish in a day, but that what I do, I do as well as I possibly can, from my heart and spirit, from as healthy a "me" as I can bring to the world. 

Ah. Hah. The being thing and the doing thing are inseparably intertwined. If I am being a healthy me, I am doing what I do best. Not perfectly, but with all I can bring to the working, living, and doing what I can to make the world a better place. 

All of which brings me to some very practical realizations, including this one: I'm going to practice cutting myself some slack in the expectations portion of my life. I'll let you know how it goes!

News Flash: My agent loved the new version of Bless the Birds. Last week, she submitted it to half a dozen editors at big New York publishing houses. Fingers crossed.... 

 

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Are We Lost in the Wilderness?

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This morning dawned in a real Wyoming blizzard, with snow blowing in sideways on a howling north wind, and the temperature dropping as fast as the snow. The weather was so bad that there were only five of us filling the pews at the eight o'clock service at Christ Episcopal Church. 

Still, today is the first Sunday in the season of Lent, which in the Christian calendar marks the forty days and nights in that Jesus spent in the wilderness, so our rector, Reverend Mary Caucutt, spoke on wilderness as the white flakes piled up outside. She talked about the contradictory connotations of the word, and how the metaphor of being sent to the wilderness to be tested affects our lives. 

Her topic was relevant in light of the events of the past week, the roiling of bad news from Washington DC, including the failure of the Senate to cooperate on an immigration bill, the revelation of another Trump extra-marital affair, the Russia influence-peddling investigation, and more rolling back of environmental protections. Plus another horrible and heart-rending school massacre.

It feels like we, the American people, are stumbling in some moral wilderness, numb to the decency and compassion that makes us human. Numb to the effects of our profligate, selfish, resource-wasting lifestyle. Numb even to the outrage the teenage survivors of the shootings at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida are expressing in our silence. 

If this is a test of our humanity, it seems to me that we are failing. And if we don't pick ourselves up and act, demanding better behavior and more principled and enlightened action from our representatives and leaders, from our society, we may never make it out of this hell we've driven ourselves into. 

The word "wilderness," Rev. Mary reminded us this morning, has opposing meanings: It is seen as a place of solace and retreat, of spiritual and emotional cleansing from the noise and chaos of modern life. It is also seen as a place of danger, of anxiety, of trial and tribulation. 

Thus, wilderness is both a place we flee to for succor and surcease, and a place we flee from because we fear its very wildness, its trials; we fear we may lose our way and perhaps, even our lives. Like so many of our metaphors, wilderness offers both opportunity and challenge. It is somewhere we could end up eaten by a grizzly bear, or find enlightenment, inner strength, and courage. 

A young brown bear (coastal grizzly bear) fishing for salmon in the wilderness of the Kenai Peninsula, Alaska.

Like many westerners, I have fled to the wilderness at times when I needed clarity, or simply to hear my own voice amid the babel. I twice backpacked solo across the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, trekking more than a hundred miles each time. The days of traversing the big wild, crossing icy rivers and climbing mountain passes on my own reminded me forcefully that I am small, and that my life is but one track among many, some of whom would not hesitate to make a meal of me.

Those sweaty days of walking alone, carrying all I needed on my back bared my fears and my dreams. In the wilderness, I could not escape myself, the parts I celebrate and the parts I prefer to hide. I had to rely on who I really am, not who I'd prefer to be. Wilderness time taught me how precious and precarious is this life we often take for granted: One misstep and we may truly be toast, lost for good. 

This morning, Reverend Mary also challenged us to take the lessons we have learned from times we have been thrust unwillingly into the figurative or literal wilderness and put those lessons to use. Lent is a time of searching, she said, a time of change when we are called to be "God's people" in the world. 

What does it mean to be called to be God's people in a world that seems to have gone mad? (Or Jehovah's people, Allah's people, or the Great Spirit's people?) What are we to do, exactly? 

There is no single, simple answer for that. Because each of us bring different skills and talents and beliefs to the test. I believe that if we are to make it out of the metaphorical wilderness where America finds itself now, we must resume behaving like human beings in the best sense of our capabilities.

Which to me means acting from love and compassion. Respecting our differences but refusing to allow them to be used to harm even the least among us--not just we humans, but all species. 

Having the courage to speak truth to power, to say that global climate change and the extinction of species and cultures is criminally and morally wrong. That owning automatic weapons is not a constitutional right. That just because you have power or money does not mean you can demean or exploit anyone, no matter who they are or what you believe.

That we are stronger and better people when we work together, when we help each other, when we all rise. That the world, as biology teaches us, is one enormous community. That what makes this planet home is the interrelationships between humans and all of the other species, from the microscopic plant plankton in the ocean who respire 50 percent of the world's oxygen, the same oxygen we need to breathe and live, to the oldest elephants.

It is how we behave that matters.

Lewisia rediviva, or bitterroot, the native wildflower that "rises again" to new life, reappearing as if by magic each spring. 

If we humans are not to be lost in the figurative wild of meanness and violence, it is time to step up and grow up and be the best of our species, not the worst. To act with our hearts outstretched, with our compassionate brains, not our egotistical, self-centered ones. It means being people we can be proud of. Showing our children, our neighbors, and all of the other species with whom we share this planet a good example, not failing them yet again.

Perhaps we need to be lost to see what has gone wrong, and to find the courage and strength, the passion and compassion, to make our way out, whole and healthy and determined to stand up for what is right in our country and our lives. To be what is right and good. To be the shining examples.

To be, simply and beautifully, human. 

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Writing and Words: Reclaiming "Patriarchy" and "Human"

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My apologies for the radio silence in this space. I've been on the road for a writing and speaking trip. The stimulus of new people and new places enlarges and enriches my thinking and dreaming, and refills my creative well. But the travel tires me out more than it used to, I think partly because "home," my place in the sagebrush country of northwest Wyoming, is so deeply right and restorative for me. Being away from that nourishing place costs more energy than I expected.

While I've been on the road, I've been pondering the next book. (Bless the Birds is on my agent's desk now, and I hear that it's coming to the top of her reading stack.) What's ahead for me is a book of narrative non-fiction that I'm calling "Weeding Yellowstone." It's my long-imagined plant book, a book I began researching a year ago November on my transformative fellowship at the Women's International Study Center in Santa Fe. 

As I ponder, I've also been thinking about words, and in particular, the words we use to define ourselves and also draw boundaries between us. The word that has really stuck in my craw lately is "patriarchy," in the sense the Oxford English Dictionary defines it, as "a system of society or government in which men hold the power and women are largely excluded from it." 

I cringe whenever I hear the word. My reaction is visceral, like fingernails scraping a chalkboard, like something filing my nerve endings raw, as if the word itself is antithetical to my cells. Which isn't surprising, I suppose, since I am female, and I am #MeToo. I have known supportive and wonderful men, and supportive and wonderful institutions, and I have known and worked for those who prefer their women subservient, sometimes horribly so. 

The other day, in the midst of an extended email conversation with a friend about living in a patriarchal culture, I thought, I wonder where this word comes from. What its backstory is. Whether we are using it as it was originally intended. 

Words are abstractions, symbols for what we want to convey when we can't just grunt and point to something real and tangible. Words conjure pictures in our minds, emotions, smells, sounds, textures, actions. Words are not, however, real. You can't eat a word, touch a word, or wrestle with a word (except metaphorically!). 

We define words by common consent, agreeing more or less on what these verbal sounds and written combinations of letters mean. Those definitions are codified in dictionaries, in print or online. We also informally add connotations, shades of meaning, or slang, street-meanings. 

Those definitions and informal usages change over time, giving us a kind of history of where a particular word or group of words came from. Which is why I was curious about patriarchy. Had it always meant a culture so oppressive to women, over half the world's population, that just hearing the word sets my jaw and tightens my stomach muscles?

As it turns out, no. Patriarchy has a long history, coming originally from the Greek word patriarkhes, itself from patria, which means "family" and arkhes, "ruling." So in Greek the word meant family rule, not explicitly male rule, or male-dominated culture or society. 

Family rule. And yes, you can make an argument that family rule meant male in ancient Greece, but not necessarily. If the word had specifically been "male rule" in the original Greek, the root would have been andrás, the Greek word for "man." Instead, it's the more inclusive and less-gendered patria, "family." 

Somewhere along the route that the word patriarchy has taken since, as it was modified in ecclesiastical Latin and then Old French and Middle English, it lost the possibility for un-gendered and perhaps more egalitarian rule implied by "family," and took on a more rigid meaning of males in power, females largely excluded. 

Okay, maybe not my eccentric (but happy) family in rule... 

As I read the etymology of the word, an idea took root in my mind: Why can't we reclaim the original meaning? Why not return the meaning of patriarchy and patriarch back to family rule? How do we go about "re-patriating" the word? 

If language is a cultural thing, stemming from both common and formal use, what if we simply began to assert that a patriarchal culture and society is one based on family, one that includes all genders, one that does not rest on any single person's shoulders? 

And while we're at it, let's stop using man as the gender-based word it is now. The roots of our English word "man" comes from Sanskrit manu, translated as "mankind," or "human," which both sound gendered. But look more deeply at the roots of human, and you find the Sanskrit root that has become hu in English is the word for "soil" or "earth." So human might more reasonably mean "people of the earth." 

If we called ourselves human in the sense of "people of the earth" and thought of our culture as one of "family rule," how much would that change our lives, our art, our thought, our institutions? Perhaps "Y-ugely." (Sorry, I couldn't resist that.)

Seriously, let's reclaim our language, beginning with at least these two words. Let's make these culture- and society-defining words inclusive and open to all. It's a start on building a society to match the potential of our species as people of the earth. Human, a family of all. 

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Staying Balanced in Chaotic Times

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These feel like chaotic times, with racism and greed living in the White House, and disasters filling the news, whether it's the mudslides devastating Montecito, California, or the erroneous nuclear-missile-incoming warning that terrified Hawaii. I'm not sure these times really are any more chaotic than any other time in history, but with the instant access to the news, and social media amplifying every crisis, small or large, and affording every idiot a soap-box and virtual microphone, it certainly seems that way. 


So how can we keep from going crazy? Retain our equilibrium personally and as a nation? How can we all keep calm and chive on, as the saying goes?


Everyone is different, so what works for me might not for you. Still, here are some ideas: 


Watch less news. Or at the very least, be choosy about what you watch. Look for news shows that are in-depth analyses and less likely to veer into sensationalism and hysteria. Don't watch the news right before going to bed--it's bad for your sleep, and sleep helps keep our bodies healthy and our minds in good shape.  
I read the news online (not on social media, on actual news sites like National Public Radio, the Los Angeles Times, and the New York Times). That way I avoid being deluged with drama, and can chose to focus on the news that interests me most. 


Limit social media time so that you don't get sucked in and depressed. Use a timer if necessary! 
I give myself half an hour in the morning, half an hour at midday, and half an hour in the evening (but again, not right before I go to bed). I spend time connecting to friends, family, and readers. And reading posts from people whose take on the world I find interesting. I ignore rants of any kind or flavor. 



Get moving regularly, and get outside. Every day. Preferably in a natural setting, the wilder the better. Research shows that time in nature, or Vitamin N, as author Rich Louv calls it, is calming emotionally and physiologically, and it helps us make better decisions, focus more easily, and increases our ability to be empathetic and forgiving (even to ourselves). 
I take a brisk half-hour or longer walk every day, no matter the weather. Because I come from a Calvinist activity-must-be-useful background, I do some of my errands along the way. 


Take a positive action every day. Write your members of Congress, do volunteer work, be kind to someone not from your tribe, speak up at a hearing, contribute to a good cause, support a candidate, smile at everyone you meet... Do something small or large that counters the climate of negativity and division in this country. Exercise your right to free speech, your expectations of civility and honesty and respect, your part in our democracy. 
I'm much better at quiet participation and spreading kindness than at actively speaking out. But these are times that require increased participation from all of us. So I have challenged myself to speak up regularly in letters to the editor, and in emails to members of congress and local leaders. I also support others who are more active than I am in whatever way I can. 



Feed your spirit daily. Whether you spend five minutes in morning prayers or half an hour meditating, whether you do yoga in a spiritual way, light candles, or simply gaze at a beautiful flower in mindful awe, practice some kind of daily ritual that gets you out of yourself and taps into the universal sense of awe, wonder, connectedness--the sacredness that gives this world and each of us that ineffable numinousness. 
I start each day with mindful yoga and prayer (even if I have to talk myself into taking the time!). Yoga to strengthen both body and spirit, and prayer (the intentional kind, not the pleading with God or gods kind), to send my love and goodwill out into the world. 


Find joy. Do something every day that brings you joy, whether quiet satisfaction or exuberant delight. Whatever it is, relish in the experience and make immersive. Don't short-change joy. Ever. 
I have a daily haiku practice that reminds me to look for beauty and wonder every day. I shoot a photo and write a haiku, and then post both on social media (Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram) to share my bit of gratitude for being alive. (To follow me on any of those platforms, go to the main page of this site, scroll down and click on one of the social media icons on the lower right-hand side of the page.) Today's example:



snow melts

shining bubbles float down sidewalk

then pop! into air


Keeping our balance personally and as a nation takes practice and sustained effort. It takes each of us working at it in a small or large way every day. We won't always succeed, but that's okay. We just keep working on it. Together. 

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New Year: Begin as you intend to continue

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"Begin as you intend to continue," my Scots grandmother, Christine Faquharson Tweit used to say. (She was a Highland Scot by birth--that's the Faquharson part, who married a Norwegian, hence the Tweit.) 

It's an old-fashioned piece of advice that seems almost self-evident, but it's easy to forget how powerful setting the tone and intentions at the beginning of any endeavor can be, whether a New Year, a new task, or a new path in life. Start on your best foot, and you'll give yourself the best chance for success.

So this morning when I woke an hour late after being out at a New Year's Eve party last night, I thought, I'll just be lazy, skip yoga, and go right to breakfast. 

Then I heard my grandmother's voice in my head, and I decided to start this first day of 2018 by remembering my intentions, which are:

To live with my heart outstretched as if it were my hand, as a way to further my mission: 

To heal and restore this Earth and the Life and lives who share our glorious blue planet. 

To nurture and celebrate diversity, that all may thrive.

And after a moment of internal grumbling, I unrolled my yoga mat and began my practice.

What does yoga have to do with those high-toned intentions? The yoga I practice is about physical and spiritual well-being, which are essential both to living with love, and having the strength and courage to work at mending and nurturing this battered world and we who share it. 

Yoga is my morning tune-up, my time to check in with my body, and stretch and strengthen muscle, ligament, bone, and being. It's also my time to stretch and strengthen my spirit through prayer, not the I-ask-the-surpreme-being-for-something kind. Prayers that invoke my connection to the earth and all that is sacred in this world, and my intentions for living with love and compassion, as I say at the end, "To everyone everywhere." By which I mean, all beings, and all forms of life. 

And wouldn't you know, when I finished, I remembered that yoga is worth the time and energy, even when, perhaps especially when I don't want to make the time and to put in the effort. It never fails: that half-hour of exercise and prayer always sets the tone of my day in a positive way. It helps me see the beauty around me, even when that's difficult.

(Beauty like the full moon, huge and butter-yellow, and peeking over Beacon Hill tonight in the photo at the top of the post. Or like the hoarfrost on the spruce needles out my bedroom window when it was minus two this morning.)

That exhortation to begin as I intend to continue is also why I dove into writing today, instead of spending this Monday holiday lazing around. All of my spare writing time for the past nine months has gone into a radical rewrite of my memoir, Bless the Birds, a story I thought finished last year, and which turned out to need a new perspective and its own new beginning. 

In starting over, I took a risk familiar to every writer beginning any project: your idea about how to proceed may seem great at the outset, but it may not pan out. Creative writing--any creative work--is at least partly a gamble that you can make your inner vision come real, and that it's a compelling vision that will speak to others. 

The gamble is that you won't necessarily know if your idea is working right away. You might spent hours, days, weeks, months, or even years on a project that simply doesn't ever cohere and sing. 

That's where I've been with this re-envisioning of Bless the Birds. I felt intuitively that the new narrative framework was worth a try, but I didn't know if it would carry the story all the way through to the end in a way that was compelling, relatable, and believable. 

These past few weeks, I've been writing in kind of a fever, pushed along by the work itself, as if it was racing toward that ending. On Saturday afternoon, I wrote the very last page, printed it out, and took the stack of 270 pages to my dining room. I set the manuscript on the table, fixed my lunch, and ate it with a stinking big grin on my face. I was and am proud of myself. 

I finished. And the story works. In fact, I think this new version of Bless the Birds is the best writing I have ever done. I am a bit stunned that I pulled these words, sentences, paragraphs, and pages out of me. 

I gave myself a day to bask in having completed a great draft. And then this morning, I dove back in and began revising. I read the first five chapters (45 pages) aloud as if narrating the audio version of the book. As I read, I listened to the story and I took out a bit here and there, added in other bits, adjusted words and sentences and paragraphs. Polishing the whole. 

At the end of those five chapters, at quarter to four this afternoon as the light was going gold toward sunset, I had the same grin on my face. I like this story. A lot. It sings, it howls, it flows, it laughs, it sobs, it savors. It's full of love and humor, silliness, pain, beauty, wisdom, and heartbreak. Life. 

I'm going to give myself this week to read all 77,000 words (27 chapters plus the Epilogue) out loud, revising as I go. Then, if I still feel good about the story, off it goes to my agent to see what she thinks. And I will get back to the deadlines I've been ignoring as I poured my heart and mind and all my writing skill into Bless the Birds. 

So as I sit here tonight, grinning like a lunatic at the stack of manuscript pages that will be my 13th book, I wish you all the most blessed of New Year's. May you begin this year as you intend to continue. 

May 2018 bring you joy and all sorts of unexpected gifts. And may you live with love, kindness, and courage, bringing your light to the darkness of this world, every day. 

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Lighting the Darkness (again)

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For many years, Richard and I celebrated Winter Solstice by inviting friends and family to help us "light the darkness" by filling and lighting dozens of luminarias to glow through the year's longest night. The little candles on a scoop of sand in a fragile paper bag lined our half-block of reclaimed industrial property, and their light shone until dawn. 


After lighting the luminarias (not easy in the cold and wind!), the crowd trooped inside to sample my Sinfully Delicious Eggnog, which I made by the gallon for the occasion (literally, using four dozen eggs, two pounds of confectioner's sugar, many cups of dark rum, and a dairy-cow's worth of cream), and other goodies. The sound of laughter and happy voices filled our house into the night as the luminarias glimmered outside. The warmth and love were palpable for days afterwards. 


Solstice and the Light the Darkness party were a highlight of the year for Richard, and when we had to move to Denver for his radiation treatments during the first year of his brain cancer, he was low about missing the celebration until I decided to throw the party via the internet. Our community of friends, family, and readers of my blog sent in images from around the world, and in Salida, a small crowd gathered to light luminarias and continue the tradition at our house. (Thank you all!)


We told ourselves that we would revive the Light the Darkness party the next Winter Solsice, but it was not to be. My mother was dying that winter, and we commuted back and forth to Denver so I could manage her hospice care and be with my folks through her end.



Luminarias ltght "Matriculation," Richard's sculpture in the Salida Steamplant Sculpture Garden. (It's the slanting stone atop two stones that open like a book on the far left side of the photo.)


The following Winter Solstice, we did light the darkness again, but Richard was only with us in spirit: Molly and I revived the tradition for Richard's Celebration of Life, a moving and racous remembrance in the ballroom of Salida's Steamplant Theatre and Conference Center. The luminarias, with messages to Richard written on the bags, circled his sculpture, "Matriculation," in the Strawn/Grether Sculpture Garden outside. 


I revived the Light the Darkness party the following Winter Solstice, partly because our friends and family loved the celebration and partly in Richard's memory. But the next year I had just moved into the little house, and it didn't have the space for the kind of big sprawling party that Richard had loved, and I didn't have the heart. I did light luminarias on Solstice, and I made a batch of eggnog and gifted it in jars. 


This year, my first Winter Solstice at home in Wyoming, I was determined to light the darkness again. Both for the symbolism of illuminating the year's longest night as a promise that warmth and life will return, as well as the act of spreading light and love to brighten a dark time in our country and the world.


I also wanted to avoid the divisiveness of today's discourse and celebrate the winter holidays by being inclusive. It's no coincidence that winter holidays in the Northern Hemisphere, including Channukah, Kwanzaa, Christmas, and Yule revolve around light. They all fall around Winter Solstice, that "hinge-pin" where the year turns from the darkness of those long nights back toward longer and brighter days and the warmth of spring. Celebrating Solstice itself honors all of those traditions in a spiritual way without choosing just one.



So last Thursday, on a still and cold evening, a couple of dozen friends and I lit the darkness: That afternoon, I poured sand into paper bags, put a candle in each, and set out 50 luminarias. At dusk, friends arrived to help light them. Afterwards, we went inside and drank homemade eggnog and other festive beverages, nibbled on holiday goodies, and enjoyed each other's company. Just as with the parties in Richard's day, laughter and love filled my house, blessing it with the joy of the season. The luminarias glowed through the night, casting their light on darkness literal and metaphorical. 


That's my wish for each of you, our country, and for the world: that the light and love of this holiday season fills your hearts, and that you remember and nurture our shared humanity. That we all make the turn toward the warmth and life of spring, and resolve to share the best of who we are, to behave with kindness and compassion for everyone. No exceptions. 


Blessings to you all!



I saved some of the luminaria bags from Richard's Celebration of Life. This inscription and sketch is from painter Charles Frizzell

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